BOISE, Idaho — Before, during and after Friday’s Potato Bowl between Wyoming and Central Michigan, all eyes were on Josh Allen.
His status for the game was in question until midweek because of a shoulder injury that had sidelined him for Wyoming’s final two regular-season games. His three laser-like touchdown passes in the first quarter Friday did enough to earn him Potato Bowl MVP honors. And his announcement after the game solidified what had long been assumed, that he would forgo his final season at Wyoming to enter the NFL Draft.
But while the spotlight was on Allen, it was Wyoming’s defense that stole the show at Albertsons Stadium, much as it has throughout its incredible about-face of a season. The Cowboys forced eight turnovers, breaking a school record set by themselves earlier this year, to deliver Wyoming its first bowl win since 2009, 37-14.
“I was low-key mad he got the trophy,” said defensive tackle Youhanna Ghaifan, who had two sacks, 2.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. “As a whole defense, we wanted it. But I still love Josh. He still deserves it.”
Wyoming set a program record for a bowl game with 37 points, despite going the final three quarters without an offensive touchdown.
The Chippewas entered the game with 31 takeaways this season, the most of any team in the country. Wyoming was just one behind them, with 30. Two years ago, in a 2-10 season, Wyoming forced just 10 turnovers, tied for worst in the nation. Now, they lead the country with 38.
The game’s eight takeaways, all forced by Wyoming, were as follows: fumble (forced by Nela Lolohea, recovered by Sidney Malauulu), fumble (forced by Logan Wilson, recovered by Marcus Epps), interception (Andrew Wingard), interception (Wilson, tipped by Ghaifan), interception (Tyler Hall), fumble (forced by Ghaifan, returned for a 58-yard touchdown by Carl Granderson), interception (Epps), fumble (forced by Wingard, recovered by Jalen Ortiz).
“This defense is special,” Ghaifan said. “All of us, we all do our jobs, and we do it exceptionally well. You can see the result, that we’re successful. We’re getting turnovers.
“On Central Michigan having more turnovers than us, I think we did kind of want to get that. How much did we get? Eight? Not too shabby.”
Wyoming’s offense gained a combined 124 yards in the final three quarters, but in the first quarter, Allen looked as impressive as he had all season.
If the Mountain West preseason offensive player of the year had any rust from not playing in more than a month, he got it out of his system on Wyoming’s first drive. The Cowboys went three and out to start the game, with Allen throwing a near-interception on third down. After that, Wyoming scored on its next four drives, two of which followed Central Michigan turnovers. Allen rocketed touchdown passes to Jared Scott, Austin Conway and C.J. Johnson, showing why Denver Broncos general manager John Elway had made the trip to Boise.
But as well as Allen played in the first half — 8-of-13 for 122 yards and three touchdowns — Wyoming’s defense put the ball on a platter for him. The Cowboys’ average starting field position in the first half was the Chippewas’ 44-yard line, while Central Michigan’s average drive started at its own 17. Wyoming’s only scoring drive of 50-plus yards was a four-play, 65-yard touchdown drive that ended on a 45-yard bomb from Allen to Johnson.
Central Michigan’s only first-half points, and more than half its first-half yardage, came on a 74-yard Jonathan Ward wheel route touchdown that Wyoming completely failed to cover. The Chippewas had just 9 rushing yards before halftime and only 46 first-half passing yards besides that touchdown, which briefly cut the Wyoming lead to seven.
Two second-quarter field goals by Cooper Rothe sent Wyoming into the half up 27-7. His third field goal broadened the lead to 30-7 in the third quarter.
The Chippewas used their first red zone trip of the day to cut into the lead with a 3-yard Ward touchdown run. But Central Michigan’s next drive would not fare as well. Ghaifan sacked quarterback Shane Morris and forced a fumble. Granderson, who had been annoyed with himself for not scoring on an interception return against New Mexico, scooped up the 58-yard Christmas gift.
“I was just thinking I have to get to the end zone this time,” Granderson said. “So I looked at the scoreboard and I saw the big screen, and nobody was around me. So I just had to take it to the house.”
Hall had secured his record-setting interception on the first series of the second half, and two Central Michigan drives after Granderson’s score, Epps got his. Wingard’s forced fumble on the next Chippewa series broke the Wyoming record, which the Pokes set Oct. 28 against New Mexico, forcing seven.
Allen checked out of the game to cheers on the Cowboys’ final drive, and, as with the Nov. 11 Air Force game when Allen injured his shoulder, backup Nick Smith kneeled out the win.
Wyoming was playing in consecutive bowl games for the first time in 29 years. The Cowboys’ last bowl win came against Fresno State in the 2009 New Mexico Bowl. Head coach Craig Bohl is the fourth Wyoming head coach to take Wyoming to multiple bowl games. The Cowboys lost to BYU last year in the Poinsettia Bowl.
“It’s a great win for us,” Bohl said, “and it’s going to put our program in a different position going forward.”
Notes: Johnson suffered what Bohl believed to be an ACL injury. ... Starting right guard Kaden Jackson was sidelined with a knee injury suffered at San Jose State. Gavin Rush started in his place. ... Scott, a true freshman, now has two receptions for two touchdowns in his career, following the example set by tight end Austin Fort, who scored four touchdowns on his first four career touches earlier this season.